The discourse surrounding breaking barriers as a woman has surely evolved throughout the subsequent waves of feminism. It has been almost 140 years since the first instances of protest concerning women’s suffrage and access to political activities triggered Australia to become the second nation to give women the right to vote (after New Zealand in 1893) and the first nation to give women the right to be elected to Federal Parliament.
‘In the politics of a democracy there should be no sex. A woman without a vote is an inferior, and thereby liable to be so regarded.’
Yet despite the long history of protest, breaking barriers within society and the workplace has been a very modern phenomenon. We can thank the strong women in positions of leadership and power within their local communities and the world stage, who have challenged the circumstances of their situations, for providing the catalyst to liberties we take for granted now.
In light of the recent flood of shocking events of #MeToo Movement, modern barriers to equal education, inaction by the government in protecting gendered and domestic violence survivors and the debate surrounding abortions in NSW, sexism, albeit a more internalised and systemic form, is still alive and well within society.
Here are some stats you might not know:
- The full-time gender pay gap based on the 2017-18 is still 3%, meaning men earn $25,717 on average a year more than a woman. (Source: WGEA, AU Gov)
- 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. (Source: White Ribbon)
- Abortion has recently been introduced to parliament to decriminalise the medical procedure in NSW. (Source: ABC News)
- 3% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women completed Year 12 or a Certificate II, in comparison to 88.1% of women born in Australia. (Source: ABS)
- Highest percentage of people living in poverty in Australia are women. (Source: The Guardian)
- In PwC’s 2019 Women in Work Index, comparing female economic empowerment, Australia ranks just above 50% and has failed to improve for the past two years. (Source: Pwc)
- 93% of Australia’s top 200 CEOs in 2018 were male. (Source: Pwc)
- After graduation, women earn less than men in 17 out of 19 fields of study and across 9 out of 13 industries. With the largest disparity being in Financial and Insurance services. (Source: WGEA AU Gov)
- One woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner. (Source: Australian Institute of Criminology)
It is often in these cases, where one would put down the poster board and sigh with defeat, that it is all just too much and that the world isn’t fair for just allowing women to be treated equally to begin with. We can often feel like we’re speaking to ourselves, in a bubble of activism. I know I sure do have these feelings at times.
However, I believe breaking barriers is a cornerstone of feminism. To me, breaking barriers is what we owe ourselves as strong individuals who are equal to any other person and what we owe those who have paved the way.
As a young educated woman of the Millennial Generation living in a developed country and the daughter of refugees, I am aware of the luxuries I was inherently born with and the struggles I will never come to know. I would like to acknowledge the reality of barriers facing women, especially women of colour, women without access to education, women who have disabilities, women in third world countries and transgender women.
These barriers cannot be summed up in one article and offered a neatly packaged solution, however, I would like to highlight the work of women living and thriving under these circumstances.
The Revolutionary Women Around the World
We can often forget how and who started it all and how to stay hopeful when working to shattering stereotypes for all female identifying individuals into the future. There are and have been thousands of women playing key roles in ‘shattering the glass ceiling’ throughout history. Here are a few who have movers and shakers who are inspirations to us all.
Tereshkova was the first and youngest woman to have gone to space. (It took almost two decades for the next female to go to space!) Talk about out of this world. It was the year 1963 and she was only 26 years of age. She continued on into the Russian Air Force, attaining the rank of major general.
Merkel, famously known as the Chancellor of Germany (14 years and counting!) and leader of the EU, is the most powerful woman in the world, topping the Forbes’ list for 10 years in a row. She has steered Germany through economic recessions, challenged the idea of women in power as the nation’s first female Chancellor and redefined the ideas surrounding foreign policy, by opening Germany’s borders to house 1.4 million refugees in total.
“There is one red line we should not cross. It is a commitment to human rights, the respect of the dignity of the human being. There should be no compromises.”
– Angela Merkel, 2011, Annual Munich Security Conference.
Bandaranaike was the first non-hereditary female elected in Sri Lanka as the head of the government in 1960. She served three terms as the Prime Minister finishing in 2000, 2 months before her passing. She was an inspiring force, focusing on the importance of improving the quality of life for females living in rural Sri Lanka. Empowering women through funding and creating agricultural projects, disaster relief and education programmes.
Ing-wen is the first woman elected to office and is currently serving as the President of Taiwan. She has vocally supported disadvantaged groups including the poor, women and children, the Indigenous people of Taiwan and the LGBT community. Under her government, Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to recognise same-sex marriage. (YES!).
‘Gender used to be a barrier for women to overcome if they wanted to be in politics, but today in Taiwan, the situation is somewhat different. I think there is even a preference for a woman candidate, and in local elections, we have seen that younger, better-educated female candidates are overwhelmingly preferred by the voters.’
– Tsai Ing-wen, 2016
Hill, an African-American lawyer and University professor, made history when she testified before Congress about the sexual harassment she faced by Clarence Thomas, to whom she was an aide. It was the year 1991 and Hill showed her courage and determination, testifying in front of an all white male Senate Judiciary Committee. In an era where as Hill describes, ‘Many people viewing the hearings didn’t even realize that sexual harassment was something that was actionable, that they could file a complaint about. They had no idea what the concept was about.’, Hill challenged the abuse and gave women a voice on the national and international stage. Hill continues to challenge society and shed light on matters of sexual harassment on women in the workplace.
“Women who accuse men, particularly powerful men, of harassment are often confronted with the reality of the men’s sense that they are more important than women, as a group.”
― Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power
Murad, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, is a celebrated Yazidi human rights activist from Iraq. She was captured in 2014 by Islamic State and held as a slave whilst tortured and assaulted. When she managed to escape and arrive at a refugee camp, the passion and fire within her helped her begin her career as an activist. She campaigns as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking for the United Nations and travels the world to tell her own personal stories of perservence and bravery. She fights for the rights of marginalised minorities and has challenged individuals including President Trump on the inhumane treatment of Yazidi women and children.
Gonzalez is an inspirational activist and advocate for gun control in America. In her senior year of high school, she survived the 2018 Parkland shooting in Florida and subsequently grabbed the international community with her speech about gun violence, with the famous words ‘We call B.S.’. Gonzalez, a vocal organiser of the March for Our Lives, has been using her voice to speak about the real life tragedies and broken system facing young children and teens in their classrooms.
Tabei, was the first woman to climb to the peak of Mount Everest (1975) and Seven Summits (1992). In a society and field dominated by men, Tabei dares to challenge this stereotype and expectation. She is vocally critical of the home-maker lifestyle that was and is forced onto Japanese women, to raise children instead of pursuing dreams. She continued to lobby for environmental rights and worked together with preservation and conservation organisations.
Patsy Takemoto Mink
Mink became the first Japanese American to practice law as well as the first woman of colour elected to the US House of Representatives. Mink then pushed the envelope further by coming the first Asian American to run for President in 1972. What an amazing role model for all Asian American women. Mink has shown her deep seeded activism through real and impactful change. She helped passed a famous piece of legislation creating easier access to women joining the workforce, especially in the sporting industry and seeking higher education. The Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation, created in her honor, aims to live on through her spirit, helping children and women achieve their best through educational services.
How can I break down my own barriers?
Call yourself out when you make your own stereotypes
It’s easy to be complacent because a passing thought might not seem all that important in the grand scheme of things. As they say, old habits die hard. We hold onto these beliefs and emulate them onto those who surround us and those who will succeed us. It’s important to step out of the values of our upbringing or surroundings and question what we believe in and how we can be better.
Uplift the women in your life
When you acknowledge someone else’s achievements, you not only build self esteem, you invest in their future. I had a mentor during an explosively stressful period of time and the words she left me with and the belief she had in my potential still speaks to me to this day. Invest in the future women and they’ll be repay the world with their talent.
Have clear dialogue with the men in your life
Addressing the feeling that women might be yelling into an empty void is a real factor of the nature of modern feminist discourse. Start conversations with the men in your life. It might seem awkward, yes, but it’s important to bridge the understanding.
I’ve had bad experiences speaking to friends who I have disagreed with, on controversial female issues. In a world where we are so connected and yet so far away from insightful and peaceful discussions, opinions, especially ones which might differ from ours can be unsettling. It is so easy to create groups of us and them. Us, the righteous and them, the close minded.
Why the hell would they think this way? I didn’t know this certain person believed this? I would urge you that any type of transparency and intimate, honest conversation is far more beneficial than nothing at all.
Invite them to events. Get them talking about what they believe in. Explain to them your feelings and ask for theirs. When it comes up on the news (brace yourself), ask for their opinion and start a comfortable dialogue.
Donate or volunteer for organisations who are dedicated to supporting women in Australia and across the world including:
- The Katrina Dawson Foundation
- Share the Dignity
- Books for Africa
- Australian National Committee for UN Women
- Fitted for Work
- CARE Australia
- The Global Women’s Project
- International Women’s Development Agency Overseas Aid Fund
- White Ribbon Australia
- Women’s Community Shelters
- Women’s Housing Limited
- Women’s Legal Services
- One Girl Australia
- Domestic Violence Crisis Service
- National Breast Cancer Foundation
- Ovarian Cancer Australia
- Women’s Circus
To end, I would like to leave you with a quote from Legally Blonde as well as a list of resources you might be interested in to educate yourself on topics affecting women at this very moment. Remember:
“You must always have faith in people. And, most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.”
Written by Vivien Nguyen
- A, 2019, ‘Supporting Young Women in West Africa: The “Breaking Barriers” Campaign Launches’, MoveDemocracy, https://www.movedemocracy.org/supporting-young-women-in-west-africa-the-breaking-barriers-campaign-launches
- A, 2016, ‘Breaking down the barriers to girls’ education’, Global Partnership Education, https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/breaking-down-barriers-girls-education
- A. N.D. ‘Unlocking the power of refugee women and girls’, UNHCR, https://www.unrefugees.org.au/our-stories/unlocking-the-power-of-refugee-women-and-girls/
- Coleman, A. 2015, ‘Breaking down the barriers for women entrepreneurs’, Case Foundation, https://casefoundation.org/blog/breaking-down-the-barriers-for-women-entrepreneurs/
- Davies, A. 2011, ‘Breaking down barriers for women in the workplace’, Stanford University, https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/breaking-down-barriers-women-workplace
- Greiner, M & Gertz, A. 2019, ‘The Witch of Wall Street and other barrier breaking women’, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/photo-essays/2019-03-08/the-witch-of-wall-street-and-other-barrier-breaking-women
- Gino, F. 2018, ‘4 Ways Women Can Break Barriers by Breaking the Rules’, Harvard Business Review,https://hbr.org/2018/05/4-ways-women-can-break-barriers-by-breaking-the-rules%20https://www.rescue.org/article/breaking-down-barriers-women-and-girls
- Greening, J. 2016, ‘Here’s how you can break down the barriers stopping women reaching their full potential’, WeForum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/heres-how-you-can-break-down-the-barriers-stopping-women-reaching-their-full-potential/
- Mackey, M. 2019, ‘The Experience of Gender Inequality in IT on Current High School Students’https://docs.google.com/document/d/16lmz5EEfma31ncBK9zXh65mBE7eDNcMh7sql_FMbeoY/edit?usp=drivesdk&fbclid=IwAR1KBO9XAcvYYr_L1IqtsImrOUFXfU3ACcp6VS_DRd1-kTcozPoZv9sppl4
- Silverstein, J. 2019, ‘Who is the squad and what you need to know about Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib’, CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-is-the-squad-what-you-need-to-know-about-aoc-ocasio-cortez-omar-tlaib-pressley/
- Anne Hathaway on International Women’s Day – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdw8KNmr2pc
- Women Breaking Barriers Sundance Panel – 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e63gxorVT-g
- Emma Gonzalez’s powerful March for Our Lives speech in full – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u46HzTGVQhg
- Oprah’s Tearful Speech at Power of Women – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Rfn94k717U
- Priyanka Chopra – Full Power of Women Speech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCwKM6uB71I